Last year, I finished a complete re-write of my manuscript. I started the story in a different place, changed the protagonists’ goals, motivations and conflicts, cut two viewpoints, and, in short, worked out what the whole damn thing is supposed to be about. I sent the manuscript out to friends for feedback. They made suggestions. I re-wrote sections – insert: nights spent lying wide awake, gut churning, wondering whether I was wasting my time, thinking maybe I should focus on being a better librarian, wife, mother, that I wasn’t clever, talented, brave or inspired enough to write a novel.
I then paid for a manuscript assessment.
The assessor, Anne Bartlett, made a swag of positive comments. She also made suggestions for the novel’s improvement. That’s what you pay for, right? That’s what having a manuscript assessment is all about? Correct. But that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t hurt like crazy. I mentioned thIs pain to my writing teacher, poet and novelist friend, Earl Livings.
“I tend to get a little churned up after feedback,” I said, casually after Welsh class one night (insert: heartburn, therapy, hours boring your friends with possible plot changes, OMG the world is ending, your whole family’s tactic avoidance of the subject type feelings).
“You think that’s unusual?” He replied. “Most writers go into a complete spin.”
One of the assessor’s main pieces of feedback was about the beginning. She wrote:
“Slow start. The section in the cellar is well written, but in one sense its a false start – the story really begins when they board the ship.”
I relayed this piece of feedback to one of my long-suffering non-writing friends (yes, I like to spread my angst far and wide).
“That’s interesting,” she said. “Didn’t your first draft start with the characters boarding the ship?”
She was right. Damn it! I’d re-drafted the story to start in a different place, spent hours researching housing and living conditions in nineteenth century Covent Garden only to be told, the story should really begin right where it had initially begun. At this point, you may be excused for thinking I had wasted my time. That I’d be going back weeping and gnashing my teeth, to the initial draft. Wrong. I’d learned a great deal about my characters in those re-written scenes. I had also come to realise multiple re-writes are part of the process (along with the obligatory gut churning). That sometimes you have to write things to learn things, then re-write them differently to include what you’ve learned. I’m slowly coming to realise experimenting is part of re-drafting. As a consequence, I have cut about four thousand words from the beginning of the manuscript, the new start is leaner, tighter and (I hope) better. Meanwhile, I’m putting the trashed cellar scene here, on my blog, for your reading pleasure.
Thursday 26th of August, 1841
Not long. They had to tire soon. Wrapped in an old eiderdown, Bridie sat, knees to her chest, in the blackened living-room. Her left foot had gone to sleep from all the waiting. Her bottom had turned to stone. But she daren’t sneak out with Alf and Ma awake in the next room.
Stretching her leg out, she stifled a moan. A mistake. She heard a listening silence from beyond the bedroom door.
‘Bridie? Are you still awake?’
‘No, Ma. Fast asleep.’
‘You’ll be tired in the morning, girlie. Mark my words. I won’t have complaining.’
‘I’m trying to sleep, Ma.’
‘Well, for goodness sake stop wriggling. It’s getting on my nerves.’
That was a bit steep. Seeing as Ma’s grief could probably be heard all the way down to the Thames. But at least her sobs were starting to ease, coming softer now, less frequent. Or was that wishful thinking? No, they were fading. Her stepfather’s words also came in shorter, staccato bursts. She couldn’t make them out through the thick wood of the door but he was probably going on about the virtues of Port Phillip, New South Wales’ newest settlement. As if poor Ma didn’t already know.
The living room looked ghostly in the moonlight. As it had, that other night, almost nineteen months ago, with her dad’s corpse laid out on the table. Ma hadn’t wept that night. Nor had there been luggage piled up by the door. Only drawers half emptied and walls stripped bare as Ma, in her fury, fed his memory to the fire.
No, Ma not his ballads. Or his sheet music! Please. Not Sir Walter Scott!
An ember shifted in the hearth. Its reflection played across the wallpaper and scrubbed deal table, the new pewter brooch Alf had pinned to her shawl. Bridie heard a dog bark somewhere in the distance, Ma’s sobs fading as the gaps in Alf’s droning voice expanded. Shouts. A tinkling laughter, cabs being hailed, a rumble of carriages along Bow Street. Then silence. Night held a finger to its lips.
She inched forward on the turn-out bedstead.
It creaked. She paused, head cocked, listening for sounds from the bedroom. Nothing, only Alf’s soft rumbling snores. She rose, tiptoed across the room and picked out a rush light from the saucer on the mantelpiece. Touching it to an ember, she perched the rush in its holder, grabbed her shawl from the pile of clothes Ma had laid out in preparation for the morning and dragged it over her cotton shift. The brooch bumped heavy against her chest.
Lifting the latch, a cold draft played about her ankles as she peered out onto the blackened landing. All was still. Only a greasy smell of tallow wax hovered above the sconces on the wall. She turned, propping the door ajar. Waited. Still no sound from the bedroom. One hand gripping the banister, she inched her way down the stairs. Past the family of six from Essex, the Misses White who went out charring, the dingy first floor room Alf used to occupy.
In the hallway, she stopped, breath hard in her chest. Saw a light threading beneath Mrs Sprugg’s door. Their landlady was old and gnarled as a tree root and Bridie was pretty sure she knew how to cast spells. She wouldn’t take kindly to a fourteen-year-old girl creeping about the house in her shift. If caught, Bridie would be marched straight back upstairs to Ma. Never mind that her notebook lay hidden behind a stone in the cellar below.
She heard a scuffle, a chink of crockery. Deep moans as Mrs Sprugg eased her rheumy limbs into a chair.
She tiptoed along the cold tiles, towards the cellar door.
There were six beds in the cellar, each let out for tuppence a night, but there might be twice as many girls sleeping beneath its thin grey blankets. Bridie paused at the top of the staircase to savour the familiar, dank air. After her dad died, she’d taken over the care of the cellar, charring for Mrs Sprugg in the afternoons after she’d finished helping Ma with her piecework. Sometimes, if the candle lasted long enough, she would draw the notebook from its hiding place and write on its creamy pages. She caught her dad’s echo then, as if he dwelled behind the stone. Knew he’d loved her, despite the horrible things Ma said.
Tonight, the cellar was cold and treacle black, its air heavy with the rhythm of slow measured sleep. Cupping her hand around the flickering rush light, Bridie shuffled forward, groping for a pillar. Heard a nearby bed frame squeak. Froze. Held her breath. A girl sighed, shifting in her sleep.
Boxes had been piled at the far end of the cellar, almost to the high vaulted ceiling. A rickety table and a grimy wing-backed chair had been set before the hearth. Edging her way around the boxes, she set the little flame down on the mantelpiece and took a deep breath.
Running a hand over the dusty hearth stones, Bridie counted four to the right, walked her fingers up six, and grasped the loose stone. It rasped. The sound a hacksaw in the sticky black. She paused, fingers tensed, a familiar excitement fluttering her chest. If only she found a feather tonight? Some spangles? One last message from the fairies?
There was nothing. Her dad was dead.
Reaching into the cavity, Bridie coaxed the notebook from its hole. No need to put the stone back. She’d decided that this morning. Hugging the notebook to her chest, she swung round giddy with relief. Her toe struck the hearth. She gasped, stumbled, grabbed for the chair. Missed. Staggered sideways into the pile of boxes. They swayed. She shot out a steadying hand. Too late. Boxes clattered to the ground.
On hands and knees, Bridie held her breath. Saw a startle of white on the nearest bed.
‘Oi! Who’s there?’
Darting forward, she grabbed the girl’s shoulder and gave it a shake. ‘Hush! It’s me, Bridie. From upstairs.’
A sharp intake of breath. The girl tensed, as if ready to scream. Bridie shook her again.
‘No! Don’t! It’s me.’
Turning, she fumbled for the rush light and held it to her face. The girl blinked, knuckling her eyes, and gasped.
‘Shh,’ Bridie held a finger to her lips. ‘Remember? I clean the cellar.’
‘You ain’t cleaning now!’
The girl grabbed her lumpy bundle of belongings and kneaded it with urgent fingers. It was the nuts-and-orange girl. Bridie had seen her often enough, huddled in doorways, her face pinched and grey as if she didn’t get much to eat. She peered at Bridie now through narrowed eyes.
‘Sure you ain’t thievin’?’
‘No, truly. I’ve come to fetch my notebook. It’s precious. My dad gave it to me, just before he died. See, he’s written a message.’
The girl sniffed, clearly unimpressed. She ran her gaze over Bridie’s thick shawl and clean white shift, her hungry eyes alighting on the brooch pinned at her breast.
‘What you gonna give me?’
‘Mrs Sprugg don’t like girls sneakin’ about the house.’
‘No! I’m not sneaking. Or thieving. I came to get my notebook.’
‘So, your Ma won’t find out?’
‘Please, don’t tell anyone.’
‘Too late.’ The girl jerked her chin sideways. ‘The old hag’s coming.’
Bridie swivelled round, peering through the gloom. Saw a glimmer of distant light. Heard the tap of Mrs Sprugg’s cane. She glanced at the scatter of boxes, the table, the wingback chair. She had to hide. But where? Her gaze darted from the girl’s face, to the cellar stairs, and back again. She could squat down? Snuff out the light? But what about the girl? Her eyes were hard and cold. A thin smile twisted her mouth.
She reached out, touching a finger to the brooch.
Bridie swallowed. She didn’t care about the brooch. ‘A thistle and rose,’ Alf had said, said, pinning it to her shawl, ‘a reminder your heritage.’
She didn’t want reminding, especially not by Alf. She had her notebook for memories—real memories, from before things went wrong. Proper memories, from before Alf came along.
‘Hello! Who’s there?’ She heard Mrs Sprugg’s quavery voice.
Crouching low, Bridie blew out the rush light, her fingers fumbling with the brooch’s tiny clasp. Ma would kill her for losing it. But she didn’t have a choice. If she didn’t take her notebook to Port Phillip, she’d never feel her dad’s presence or catch his echo. He’d be lost forever from her world.
At last, the clasp sprung open. Bridie jerked the pin from her shawl.
‘Here,’ she hissed, groping for the girl’s hand in the dark. ‘Take it. Don’t breathe a word. If Mrs Sprugg catches me, we’ll both be in trouble, and Ma will be sure to have that brooch back, if she finds out.’